Burlington Superintendent Urges White Students to 'Stand Beside' People of Color | Off Message

Burlington Superintendent Urges White Students to 'Stand Beside' People of Color


Burlington Superintendent of Schools Yaw Obeng - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Burlington Superintendent of Schools Yaw Obeng
Burlington Superintendent of Schools Yaw Obeng on Monday urged white students and families to "stand beside" people of color in response to the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The outgoing superintendent issued a call to action in a three-minute video message addressing the peaceful protests and unruly riots that have jolted the country in recent days. Hundreds demonstrated outside the Burlington Police Department on Saturday.
"Our students should know that it is OK to feel outrage," Obeng said. "It is OK to feel anger and a sense of helplessness because the adults around you have failed to do the right things to enable you to inherit a society where people feel safe and respected.

"But considering these emotions, it is not OK to riot. It is not OK to loot. But it is OK to stand up, protest, speak out and develop a plan for change," he continued.

Obeng, who is black, is one of a few people of color in Vermont in an executive-level government position, and the first black superintendent in Burlington. He will step down later this month after announcing his resignation last fall.

Some prominent public officials and law enforcement leaders in Vermont have condemned Floyd's killing and expressed support for prosecuting the four Minneapolis officers involved in his arrest. Gov. Phil Scott said he was forming a racial equity task force that would examine aspects of systemic racism.
"Black people and people of color are feeling great pain in this moment because it is a reminder of the lack of progress, and the inequities that still exist," Obeng said in the video.

The superintendent challenged students, parents and school officials to work together as "allies" and "problem solvers."

"I call on our non-colored students and families to stand beside people of color.
I call on parents to have these crucial conversations with their children. I call on our staff to create safe environments that students will feel safe and comfortable to share their feelings," he said.

Obeng drew attention to educational inequities during his five-year tenure as superintendent, especially in hiring and student achievement.
The district's most recent annual equity report detailed wide racial and economic disparities in student test scores and advanced class enrollment. White students make up 60 percent of high schoolers, but made up 80 percent of students in honors classes during the 2018-2019 academic year.

Less than 4 percent of Burlington's licensed teachers are people of color. "We still have work to do,” Obeng said in a press release accompanying the report's release.

Obeng and school board trustees have clashed over some of that work, including the superintendent's decision last year to hire two black principals.

Incoming superintendent Thomas Flanagan Jr. is white. 

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